Papal election IS matter of concern to Jews

I made a remark the other day about following the politics of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement, to which my wife responded “why do you care”?

Now, admittedly, it is unusual for an Orthodox Jew to have more than a passing interest in the selection of a new pope. Yes, the process is interesting: The secrecy of it all, and especially the politics make for exciting theatre. Will the church elect its first non-European leader? Could the new pope be a black man? Or will the Italian church stand up after two successive non-Italian popes and demand the restoration of its historic inheritance, i.e. the installation of an Italian cardinal to lead the church?

Interesting questions, but what have they got to do with me? They’ve got two things to do with me.

Of course, the election of a new pope is primarily a question to concern Roman Catholics. The new pontiff clean will inherit a rash of money and sex scandals from Benedict XVI; the manner in which he chooses to clean them up could potentially be an important step towards restoring the church’s legitimacy and moral authority in the Western world. Massive cathedrals around Europe sit empty each Sunday, as disaffected Catholics have abandoned the faith in droves. Presumably, the new pope will either alienate them even further if he fails to clean up the church, or will restore its relevancy to the European masses if he does deal with the issues at hand.

Across the Pond, American Catholics have long felt an emotional tie of loyalty to the Church, while in practice ignoring significant matters of Church teaching; namely contraception and divorce. The new pope’s policy decisions on at least one of those issues (contraception) will have major implications for the hundreds of millions of Catholics who suffer gripping poverty in South America and Africa.

As I said, however, all of that is certainly of interest to Catholics, but what’s it all got to do with Jews? I’d suggest it’s got a lot to do with us: The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics is a major political position with far-reaching implications. And, if as expected the Conclave that will begin sometime in the next couple of weeks elects a youngish pope, he could well be a leader on the world stage for decades. What will his policies towards Israel look like? Will he continue the process of reconciliation started by John Paul II and continued by Benedict? Across the centuries, there has been no shortage of pope’s who tolerated or encouraged theological Judeophobia, and the results have been ferocious and bloody. Today, as the Church retires to elect a new leader, we must pray that the new pope model his papacy after his immediate predecessors, rather than after some of their earlier ones.

On a personal level, I found myself deeply inspired by Benedict’s official reason for stepping down: At age 85, he is “no longer able to perform the ministry entrusted to me”. Instead of leaving the Church essentially leadership (as it was during the final years of John Paul II’s reign), he is stepping down to “devote the rest of his life to suffering and prayer.”

To be sure, his commitment to “suffering” is antithetical to Judaism, but his devotion to prayer is not. I’d like to give the (soon-to-be-former) pope the benefit of the doubt: After eight scandal-filled years, I imagine Benedict has come to the conclusion that the corruption and rot that has infected the church is deep, pervasive at the very top levels, and beyond his ability to deal with at this advanced age. I’d like to believe he is stepping down because he believes the Church needs, if not an overhaul, then a thorough and intimate cleansing. He’s not the man to do it, so he’s stepping aside to let a younger man assume the task at hand. All he’s got to offer, then, is a deep love for the Church he’s dedicated his life to, and the ability to pray for its’ rehabilitation.

In my view, one of the striking features of Orthodox Judaism is that there is no centralised authority. But Orthodoxy today is struggling with many of the same issues as Catholicism, and many Orthodox institutions and comunities have been implicated in tolerating or perpetrating those excesses. The pope’s example stands to inspire the Jewish layity with regards the importance of prayer: The deep, private yearning for and communing with God. Were a leading rabbi to follow Benedict’s example, that strong message would reverberate across the Jewish world, and would be a clear statement that rabbinic abuses of power will no longer be tolerated in our communities.

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